With his team trailing St. Thomas 20-7 at halftime, Josh Aakre knew Bethel would come out blazing in the third quarter. The Royals quarterback had gotten a reminder of his team's spirit the night before Saturday's game at Royal Stadium, when senior Billy Morgan spoke to them about their toughness and resilience.
But the Tommies also possess a wealth of those qualities, which gave them the strength to withstand a Bethel rally for a 23-13 victory. After Aakre bounded into the end zone with 5 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the third quarter, cutting St. Thomas' lead to 20-13, the third-ranked Tommies and their stellar defense buckled down. They allowed the No. 10 Royals to cross midfield just once more -- and wrapped up the win with Jack Gavin's leaping interception in the end zone with 1:18 left.
St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said his team was eager to avenge its loss to Bethel in last fall's NCAA quarterfinals. It also knew it was in for a serious battle with another stouthearted, determined team, which enthralled 5,842 fans on a glorious fall afternoon.
"Everyone in the stadium knew we were going to get their absolute best shot coming out in the second half," said Caruso, whose team is now 8-0 overall and leads the MIAC at 6-0. "But with our defense, the tougher the scenario gets, the tougher they play. We measure ourselves by our minds and hearts, and today, our hearts were enormous."
The game pitted Bethel's rushing offense, ranked 10th in the nation, against the Tommies' run defense, ranked No. 2 in Division III. St. Thomas won that matchup, holding the Royals to 137 yards, far below their average of 291 per game. Running back Brandon Marquardt, the MIAC's second-leading rusher, managed only 10 yards on 10 carries.
But Bethel's defense came on strong in the second half, limiting the high-flying St. Thomas offense to one field goal and 112 total yards. The Tommies took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on Colin Tobin's two rushing touchdowns and stretched it to 17-0 when Tim Albright kicked a 48-yard field goal with 8:10 remaining in the first half.
On their first four possessions, the Royals gained just 86 yards and were stopped twice on fourth down. Things began to shift when Aakre threw to Reese Walker in the left corner of the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown with 1:10 left in the half, and when the Tommies had first-and-goal at the Bethel 4 on the final drive, the Royals held them to a field goal.
"That made me feel like we were clicking again," Bethel coach Steve Johnson said. "Things were very calm at halftime. We talk about giving your whole heart to the game, and our guys are willing to do that, even if it gets broken."
Aakre found some running room early in the second half, including an 11-yard touchdown dash. The Tommies blocked the extra point and the defense picked up steam as the offense struggled. The Royals intercepted a Dakota Tracy pass but lost five yards on the ensuing drive, and when they drove to the St. Thomas 25 late in the fourth quarter, Gavin ended it with his interception.
The victory keeps St. Thomas as the only undefeated team in the conference, with just two MIAC games left against Gustavus and Carleton. "This was a great challenge," Tobin said. "We knew Bethel would give us everything they had. We were prepared to take their best punch, and we handled it."